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The Short-Coin Problem

In video poker betting, you get what you pay for

By John Grochowski

 

Betting fewer than five coins turns even the best video poker games into games that will pad the house’s bankroll, not yours.

 

I’ve long suggested to fellow players that the #1 rule for a day in the casino is to stay within your bankroll. If the best game in the house is a dollar video poker machine and you have to make $100 last for a couple of hours while your significant other plays penny slots, then you’re just going to have to settle for something less than the best.

One solution many a short-bankrolled player has hit upon is single-coin play. It’s not an ideal solution. You give up a percent or so of expected value when you bet less than max coins. A 9-6 Jacks or Better machine that pays 99.6 percent with expert play and five-coin wagers returns only 98.3 percent if you bet less than the max. That’s because you don’t get the big jump from 250-for-1 to 4,000-for-5 in the royal flush return if you don’t bet the fifth coin.

Whether it’s worth settling for that drop depends on the quality of quarter poker games in the casino. If there are quarter games that pay more than 98.3 percent with wagers of $1.25, there’s little point in settling for less with $1 bets.

Still, a fellow named Jack wondered if even experts dropped to one-coin play when they were a little thin in the wallet.

“There are video poker pros in Nevada, right?” he asked me.

Yes, I told him, although there are fewer opportunities for video poker advantage play than there used to be. And most video poker “pros” have other jobs or businesses. You have to be well-bankrolled and able to withstand the inevitable losing streaks to press home the small edge you can get at some video poker games.

“It’s that bankroll part I wanted to ask about,” he said. “When a pro finds himself without enough money to bet five coins at a time, does he switch to one-coin play?”

No, I told him.

Jack was taken aback. He hadn’t expected such a short but definite answer.

“Never? I mean, surely, it doesn’t make any more sense for a pro to overbet their bankroll than it does for an average player.”

Never. A short-bankrolled pro—if he or she is smart—is a pro who doesn’t play until the bankroll is sufficiently padded.

“But surely a little one-coin play can help the pro through the tough times,” Jack said. Can’t that help build the bankroll little by little so the pro has enough to bet it all again?”

It’s more likely that one-coin play would erode the bankroll little by little until the pro had nothing left.

“But these guys are experts, and the edge is the edge, right? They know all the expert strategy.”

Expert strategy is more than knowing which cards to hold and which cards to fold. It’s also not overbetting your bankroll, and knowing that you can’t get an edge on a video poker game unless you bet maximum coins. That’s because of the huge jump in the royal flush payoff with five coins wagered. On most machines, a royal pays 250 coins for a one-coin wager, 500 for two, 750 for three or 1,000 for four. But on the fifth coin, the royal jumps to 4,000 coins—essentially, you’re getting 3,000 coins for the royal on that final coin.

“Royals are rare. Does that make that much difference?”

It makes all the difference in the world. Take 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, where full houses pay 10-for-1, flushes 7-for-1 and straights 5-for-1. With expert play, that’s a 100.17 percent game. The pro squeezes out a small profit on the game, and cash back and comps are gravy. But when the royal is worth only 250 coins per coin wagered, the payback with expert play drops to 99.11 percent. It’s not a beatable game.

Betting fewer than five coins turns even the best video poker games into games that will pad the house’s bankroll, not yours.

“But …”

Jack wanted to interject, but I was on a roll. I pointed out that to get the maximum return on your one-coin bets, it requires adjustment in strategy. When you drop to a one-coin wager on 9-6 Jacks or Better, expert play changes on hands such as 10 of spades, king of spades, queen of spades, five of spades, eight of diamonds.

Wager five coins, and your best play is to hold king-queen-10, hoping for a two-card draw to a 4,000-coin royal while leaving open the possibility of smaller payoffs for high pairs, two pairs, three of a kind, straights or flushes. With a one-coin wager, the chance of a 250-coin royal isn’t enough to chase. Holding all four spades brings an average return of 1.277 coins, compared to just 0.874 for holding the three high spades.

Jack was ready to draw this one to a close. “So to get the edge, you have to bet five coins?” he asked.

Right. In video poker, the house makes ALL its money on coins numbers one through four. On the fifth coin, the player has an edge. That goes even for lower-paying games. On 8-5 Jacks or Better, the payoff on coins number one through four is only 96.06 percent. But on the fifth coin alone, we get back 102.26 percent, raising the overall return on the machine to 97.3 percent.

“I wish I could bet just the fifth coin.”

So do I. If we got that payoff on every coin, we’d all be pros—until the games disappeared.

 

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